Relationships With Reality

The play itself is imperfect, but Arizona Repertory Theatre does its quirky best with 'Love Song'

Love Song, John Kolvenbach's self-consciously quirky play centering on an almost too quirky character, gives us something to think about, a little to laugh about and a very slight emotional brush with the characters occupying his story.

The play gets a good workout in the hands of the young actors in the University of Arizona's theater program in this production by the school's Arizona Repertory Theatre. The young actors commit to giving these characters a sympathetic treatment, and under Laura Lippman's direction, they coalesce to tell a peculiar story quite well.

Kolvenbach's play centers on a very strange young man named Beane (Owen Virgin), to whom we are introduced in the play's opening moments in his bare, dingy, electricity-challenged apartment. Still and vacant, he sits at a chunky table in a dirty raincoat. The lone light bulb hanging from what appears to be a dangerously deteriorating ceiling glows dimly, then brightly, then more brightly, then dimly again. Each time it fluctuates, accompanied by strange, menacing sounds, it commands Beane's attention, but surprisingly, not his alarm. As he sits at the table, staring at the light bulb, the chunk of ceiling holding the light bulb descends slowly, threatening to crush Beane as he stares at it blankly. The scene goes to black.

It's a striking opening scene, to be sure. The strange setting and ominous sounds and the odd young man who sits at the table intrigue us. And the scene proves to be a source of important information as the play unfolds, as, of course, it should.

Sharing the stage with Beane's apartment is another apartment interior, spare, sleek, modern. It's the home of Beane's sister Joan (Lauren Miller) and her husband, Harry (Cody Davis), who are attempting to relax after work. Professional woman Joan is agitated and needs alcohol, and Harry is trying to placate her, good-naturedly giving her some grief about her "firing" of yet another intern, which seems, in part at least, the source of her agitation. These folks seem more familiar to us than the odd Beane, but interestingly, not much more attractive.

So a tale of two worlds is set up, and how they intersect is at the heart of the play, which probes fantasy, loneliness, sanity, familial bonds, the boundaries of reality and the nature of love, including love of self.

As we witness Beane's first interaction with his sister and brother-in-law, we begin to realize just how disturbingly strange Beane is, even though Kolvenbach fills the scene with humor and, oddly, a sitcom sensibility. And we first get a hint of Joan's protective impulses toward Beane, although she seems so self-centered and inexplicably angry that these impulses don't manifest into action.

Beane escapes this scene, overwhelmed by Harry's attempts to administer a personality test. Although Beane's answers do make a certain kind of sense, they clearly are not what would be considered normal. When he returns to his apartment, he confronts burglar Molly (Kate Nienhauser), a young woman about Beane's age, who is appalled—and pissed off—that there is really nothing of value in his apartment to steal. Beane seems quite tolerant of her presence, and receptive to her scolding about what kind of person would possess a spoon but not a fork, a single cup but no plate, and have no pictures on the walls, no photos of family. In fact, Beane seems to get at least a momentary glimpse of the emptiness of his life.

Beane changes after meeting Molly. His behavior is no less odd; in fact it is more overtly so. He confides in Joan that he has "met someone." Although she is skeptical, something is obviously affecting her brother in what seems to be a positive way.

Molly returns to Beane's apartment and we witness their strange relationship develop. And we are both surprised and not so surprised as we discover more about the true nature of their relationship.

The play does have enough substance to intrigue, and it ultimately does get inside our heads and gives them a bit of a spin. But it doesn't provide quite enough substance to help us connect all the dots we need to so that we can attach to these characters. Its humor provides a levity which helps balance the weird factor, but it doesn't really offer a contrasting dimension that gives us a fuller appreciation of what's at stake. And the play's climactic shift leaves us wondering what exactly happened to result in Beane's serious change of behavior. We are left a bit stranded.

This play offers many challenges, particularly with Kolvenbach's difficult characters. Director Lippman has guided her small cast well, helping them to develop these characters with a fullness not necessarily provided by the script. Kolvenbach really just sketches both Joan and Harry, but Miller and Davis succeed in giving the couple some credibility. Molly is also—by necessity, really—a strange, elusive character, abrasive and angry, and ungrounded in a strange and disturbed world. But she has to be someone who invites at least a bit of sympathetic curiosity. Nienhauser does a good job.

Virgin gives us a sweet, lonely and at times annoying Beane. Creating a quirky character doesn't really give one the unrestrained license it would seem, and Virgin discovers for Beane the necessary boundaries that allow us to care about him.

Natalie M. Lape's set design works well, each apartment helping define the environments in which their inhabitants dwell. The sound is a critical element of the play's effectiveness, and Matt Marcus' design is terrific.

Love Song is far from a totally well-put-together play, and the questions it poses are not ones we have never heard before. But Kolvenbach does take a unique approach to them, and even though he might not provide all we need to appreciate that approach fully, he does give us an interesting theatrical experience. And that can never be bad.